Sonata Park debate heats up

Up until now, the battle between the city of Missoula and Rattlesnake residents over the controversial Sonata Park Subdivision was mostly a local one about how much influence communities have in shaping neighborhood density. But the potentially precedent-setting issue is set for a larger audience as soon as January—the Montana Supreme Court.

"It's going to be of significant interest," says Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent, who this week is busy drafting a legal brief in preparation for the case. Nugent and the plaintiff's lawyer, David K.W. Wilson Jr., both expect the case to be heard this winter.

The Sonata Park conflict heated up in 2007, when the City Council voted 10–2 in favor of giving developer Muth-Hillberry the go-ahead to build 37 homes on 34 acres just off Duncan Drive near the North Hills.

"We felt pretty ignored at the hearings," says Rattlesnake resident Kathy Heffernan. "We felt like our concerns were never spoken to, were never addressed."

The council signed off on significantly more density than many Rattlesnake residents, including Heffernan, were willing to accept. In fact, locals had spelled out exactly how they wanted to grow in a neighborhood plan that citizens and city planners crafted more than a decade prior.

The neighborhood plan, dubbed the Rattlesnake Valley Comprehensive Plan, is like dozens across the state, reflecting grassroots efforts by communities to, from the bottom up, shape growth. Such plans address how to build and pay for infrastructure along with development density. In Missoula, the Rattlesnake plan specifically stipulates that the area slated to become the Sonata Park Subdivision accommodate no more than one home per five-acre parcel. That's a far cry from the 1.1-acre per home development the city signed off on.

Because of that, three Rattlesnake residents, including Heffernan, along with the North Duncan Drive Neighborhood Association, filed suit against the city in 2008.

Earlier this year, Missoula's Fourth Judicial Court Judge Robert "Dusty" Deschamps III agreed with the plaintiffs, finding: "The city essentially ignored the central component of the Rattlesnake Plan, the land-use recommendations, when it approved a subdivision with over four times the recommended density."

Deschamps decision prompted the city to ask the Supreme Court for guidance on how much legal sway citizen-crafted growth plans wield.

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